[With the upcoming release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, we’re reposting our Mission: Impossible retrospective series.]
Tom Cruise was too big of a movie star to lack his own franchise. He had hit film after hit film, but nothing with a franchise tag. But for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, getting a franchise was no problem. The problem was definition, so Cruise eventually found himself (and his new production company) paired with Paramount’s adaptation of the 1960s TV series, Mission: Impossible, and auteur director Brian De Palma. Somehow, in an attempt to get a franchise to his name, Cruise had moved to adapt a ensemble-based property and put it in the hands of a director whose obsession with voyeurism was almost always on display. Of course, there’s no overshadowing Tom Cruise, but Mission: Impossible was both perfect for the actor and a bizarre choice for his franchise.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is the point man on Jim Phelps’ (Jon Voight) spy team, which also consists of Jim’s wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), Hannah Williams (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), and Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez). Their latest mission is to recover the NOC List, which contains the identities of hundreds of secret agents around the world. However, the mission goes horribly wrong when everyone on the team is killed and Ethan gets pinned with the blame. He soon discovers that Claire survived the attack, and together they go to recover the real NOC List so they can clear their names.
From the start, Mission: Impossible tells us it’s a Brian De Palma movie. The opening shot is surveillance, and it also tells us everything we need to know about the film we’re about to watch: don’t trust your eyes. Everything you’re going to trust in this movie is going to be ripped away, and all it will take is a convincing mask and a well-pointed camera. This isn’t spycraft; it’s screencraft. And while the movie may take some major departures from the series, it always remembers the importance of the viewer.
The spy genre suits De Palma perfectly, and while the franchise blockbuster may sound like this is a for-hire job, the director is unmistakably playing to his interests; he’s just doing it in the guise of a summer action flick starring one of the biggest movie stars of all time. But the lingering gazes, the duplicity, and the voyeurism are all hallmarks of his earlier movies. However, the film’s signature sequence—the Langley Heist discards masks and surveillance, and instead embraces De Palma’s use of sound and silence to create tension. Cruise can hang off as many buildings and planes as he wants, but the first Mission: Impossible got just as much tension lowering him from a ceiling and putting in a handful of restrictions.
The movie is so far removed from what we would now demand from a modern blockbuster. The climax of a train being chased down a tunnel by a helicopter is acceptably bonkers, but the first Mission: Impossible traffics largely in deception, thrills, and mystery. Rather than blow you away with stunts and effects, De Palma prefers playing with narrative and genre conventions, and trusts that Cruise will be the audience’s anchor point. You can impale Emilio Estevez in the face as long as you have Cruise reliably running and shouting.
Make no mistake: Tom Cruise is the main character of every Mission: Impossible movie. That’s not to say that Cruise can’t act. He has given some remarkable performances over the course of his career, but Ethan Hunt isn’t one of them. Hunt is always a reflection of where Cruise is at that point in his life. So the Ethan Hunt we meet still has that signature cockiness of Maverick, Cole Trickle, etc., but this is mid-90s Cruise. He’s got a little bit more maturity and experience under his belt, and so his cockiness is tempered to where it’s playful. Furthermore, I doubt it’s a coincidence that Cruise, in his producing debut, chose a hyper-competent, resourceful point man as his character.
In the hands of a less charismatic actor, Hunt would be a total bore, but Cruise possesses that rare ability to hold your attention no matter what he’s doing. It’s his effortless charm combined with the aforementioned maturity that makes Hunt an evolution in the actor’s career even if it’s not demanding the dramatic range of Ron Kovic or Frank T.J. Mackey. No one else could play Ethan Hunt because there is no Ethan Hunt. There’s only Tom Cruise.
So it’s odd that for his star vehicle he chose an ensemble story that requires him to be part of not one but two teams. Granted, his specialness stands out after the first team is obliterated and he goes from point man to planner for the second team, but Mission: Impossible is still supposedly an ensemble. Everyone has their role to play, and it makes the series the antithesis of James Bond. It’s not about one super spy; it’s about the importance of a well-executed plan and everyone playing their part.
Placing the Mission: Impossible franchise in Tom Cruise’s hands meant taking it out of the original series. In its most cynical terms, Mission: Impossible is a meeting of two brands, and the larger brand (Cruise), devours the smaller one. Cruise claimed to be a fan of the show growing up, but he made its hero, Jim Phelps, into the villain to make way for Ethan Hunt. But he could also get away with it because Mission: Impossible is known more for its iconography—the music, the briefing self-destruct, the structure—than the characters. You couldn’t get away with turning James Kirk into the villain and killing him off to make way for a new character, but you could do it with Mission: Impossible, and they did.
In return, they got a thrilling spy film that still holds up wonderfully today. It’s a screenplay that could be taught in screenwriting classes for how well it handles structure but also plays with narrative like when Ethan realizes that Jim is the mole, but he keeps his realization a secret. The movie is among De Palma’s best work while staying true to the auteur’s style. And Cruise showed he graduated to the next level in his career by becoming bankable in his own franchise.
And yet it was a franchise without an identity beyond him. By remaining ambivalent about whether it was a hero-driven or team-driven film, Mission: Impossible still didn’t have an identity, and De Palma’s stamp and control of the material became abundantly clear when the reigns went to John Woo for the sequel. Without a clear vision or well-defined protagonist, the series almost went to self-destruct.
Next: Mission: Impossible II